Which Baptism?

Introduction

We know of several types of baptism that were administered in the early first century and recorded in the Bible; however, Ephesians 4:5 plainly says that there is only "one baptism". Therefore, by the time Paul recorded this verse in Ephesians, all other baptisms must have fulfilled their purpose and ceased, leaving only one baptism that was to be practiced by the ongoing New Testament church.

Today, some people believe that "Holy Spirit baptism" is the one saving baptism that remains. Others, believe that "water baptism" is the only one authorized for today. While still other modern disciples pray for the Lord to baptize them in "fire". Because of the many types of baptism being advocated today, in this article we search to answer the question, "Since there is only one baptism that is authorized for today, of the many possible baptisms, which is the one baptism?"

The Possible Baptisms

During the ministries of John, Jesus, and the apostles, the Bible references four types of baptism:

  1. John's baptism
  2. Holy Spirit baptism
  3. Fire Baptism
  4. Baptism of the Great Commission

One of these baptisms may sound more powerful, or desirable, over the others. For example, baptism of the Holy Spirit sounds like it would be very powerful and beneficial to the Christian; however, we must consult the Scriptures to determine the purpose and authority of each of these baptisms. Our final conclusion must be based on Scripture, else tradition, prejudice, or other personal goals become our standard, rather than faith (Romans 10:17).

Now, let us examine the Scriptures concerning each of these baptisms. As we study, we will make observations concerning the purpose, scope, and duration of each baptism, looking for the one baptism that we are authorized and commanded to practice today.

John's Baptism

Before Jesus began His earthly ministry, his cousin John, often known as John the Baptist (Matthew 3:1), in Judea preached a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins (Luke 3:2-22).

"In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! ..."

"Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him, and were baptized by him in the Jordan, confessing their sins. ..."

"I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance, but He who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." Matthew 3:1-11

Several features are worth noting as being characteristic of John's message and baptism:

First, John was the primary administrator, or one performing the baptism. Later, as John's ministry began to draw to a close and Jesus ministry was just beginning, we learn that Jesus' and His disciples also began to baptize in addition to John (John 3:22-23), although Jesus never actually baptized anybody Himself. Only His disciples performed the baptisms (John 4:1-2). Shortly after this time, John was thrown into prison, and his ministry ceased.

Second, it should be observed that John's baptism was "unto repentance for remission of sins" (Luke 3:2-3). The primary work of his message was to prepare men's hearts by a message that would lead to a baptism for repentance. This repentance was looking forward unto the remission of sins, which would be provided through Jesus' imminent gospel message.

Third, we should note that John was aware and taught that his ministry was intended to be preparatory for the work of Jesus and would fade away as Jesus' ministry progressed, completing John's work (Mark 1:1-6). Consequently, once Jesus arrived, John's message and baptism were fulfilled, antiquated, and ceased (John 3:24-30).

Baptism of The Holy Spirit

Few people, if any, would today advocate the practice of John's baptism. However, many people would profess Holy Spirit baptism to be the cornerstone of a person's conversion and salvation. It is believed by many that this baptism results in the cleansing of the inherited total depravity that was taught by John Calvin. Although many denominations have forsaken the cruel implications of Calvinism, most continue to teach the other less offensive conclusions, such as Holy Spirit Baptism.

Contrary to Calvin's teaching, the Scripture teaches that Holy Spirit Baptism had a much more limited purpose, result, and time-frame than that of conversion and salvation. First, let us observe who was to administer this baptism:

"John answered, saying to all, "I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." Luke 3:16

Holy Spirit baptism was not administered by any mere mortal, but it was performed by the Lord Jesus Christ. This was not a baptism that could possibly be administered by a human, for the element into which the subject was immersed, or overwhelmed was the Holy Spirit.

Please notice that the purpose of the baptism was to empower the subject to work miracles and prophesy by the power of the Holy Spirit. Just before Jesus ascended into heaven, He directed and promised His apostles:

"And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, which," He said, "you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."

"Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, "Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" And He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." Acts 1:4-8

How were the apostles to accomplish this incredible mission? How would uneducated Galileans be able to preach the gospel in all of Judea, much less to the ends of the earth? How would they remember what Jesus said? How would they prove that their testimony was truly from God? Jesus informed the apostles that they would "receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you". This special assistance was previously promised to the apostles, Jesus special ambassadors. They were to be guided into all truth by the Holy Spirit. And, they were enabled to confirm their message through miraculous signs (John 16:13; Mark 16:17-20). Ten days after Jesus' ascension, on the day of the feast of Pentecost, the promise was fulfilled when the apostles were "baptized with the Holy Spirit" and "received power".

"When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance." Acts 2:1-4

This led to a miraculous scene of uneducated men speaking and preaching the gospel in over 14 different languages. When a crowd gathered to observe this strange occurrence, Peter explained:

"But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

'And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your young men shall see visions, Your old men shall dream dreams.

And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; And they shall prophesy.

I will show wonders in heaven above And signs in the earth beneath: Blood and fire and vapor of smoke.

The sun shall be turned into darkness, And the moon into blood, Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the LORD.

And it shall come to pass That whoever calls on the name of the LORD Shall be saved.'" Acts 2:16-21

Notice that this "pouring out of the Spirit from heaven" was viewed as an overwhelming, or immersing in the Spirit by the recipients on earth. What was to be the results of this baptism? Was it salvation? No, it was power unto prophesying God's message and confirming it with wondrous signs. Salvation is only mentioned at the end of the fulfilled prophecy, where it is not mentioned as a result of Holy Spirit baptism, but it is instead declared to be a gift to "whoever calls on the name of the Lord".

The only other record of Holy Spirit Baptism occurs in Acts 10 at the conversion of Cornelius and his family. The conversion was unique because it was the first conversion of Gentiles. Until this point, the gospel had only been preached to Jews around Judea and Samaria. By the time of the events in Acts 10, the time had come for the gospel to be preached to "every creature" (Mark 16:15-16). But, a powerful sign was required to convince the Jews that non-Jews were also to be granted the opportunity to repent unto life. In fact, God had to tell Peter in a vision to go preach to Cornelius and his family (Acts 10:9-35). In spite of this heavenly direction, Peter remained confused and a more powerful and obvious sign was required to enlighten Peter and his Jewish companions. The events of the following passage occurred while Peter was preaching to Cornelius and his family:

"While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word. And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. For they heard them speak with tongues and magnify God. Then Peter answered,

"Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?"

"And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord. Then they asked him to stay a few days." Acts 10:44-48

In addition to enabling Corneluis' family to prophesy through tongues, what was the significance of this sudden and astonishing bestowment of the Holy Spirit? The answer is seen in the effect that it had on Peter and the other Jews. From this event, they concluded that nobody could forbid these Gentiles the opportunity to be baptized in water, in the name of the Lord (Acts 10:47-48).

Later, Peter recountted this event to several more Jews, who similarly concluded that "God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life" (Acts 11:18). The baptism served as a sign that salvation had come to the Gentiles. God's time had come for the gospel to be preached to "every creature".

Why would someone think that this was the second and only other occurrence of Holy Spirit baptism, beside the baptism of the apostles on Pentecost, recorded in Acts 2? Notice how Peter later related the events of Acts 10:

"And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them, as upon us at the beginning.

"Then I remembered the word of the Lord, how He said, 'John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.'

"If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?"

When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, "Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life." Acts 11:15-18

First, Cornelius' family's reception of the Holy Spirit was indeed Holy Spirit baptism because Peter specifically recalled and associated this event to Jesus' promise of Holy Spirit baptism. Secondly, Peter compared this event at Cornelius' house to when it fell upon them "at the beginning"? Since over 20,000 Jews had been converted by this point, why did Peter not instead relate "as it has fallen upon every Jew", or "as it fell upon a Jew just yesterday at his conversion"? Moreover, why did Peter have to work through his confusion at the time until he recalled, "Then I remembered the word of the Lord"? It was only after he remembered the Lord's promise that he realized Jesus had personally bestowed this gift, signifying His authority for their opportunity for "repentance to life" and the opening of the gospel unto all Gentiles. These two phrases uttered by Peter imply that this was a rare occurrence and specify that the most closely related occurrence was that of the apostles Holy Spirit baptism on Pentecost, "at the beginning".

There is no other record of the Holy Spirit descending suddenly and unexpectedly on people. We have several references to the apostles deliberately bestowing gifts and powers of the Holy Spirit by the "laying on of their hands" (Acts 8:5-25). But, the distinction of this gift is seen in its administration. Baptism of the Holy Spirit was administered suddenly and unseen by Jesus, while the gift of the Holy Spirit was given by apostles through the laying on of hands (Acts 8:16-18). Although they both resulted in the ability of the recipient to perform miracles and speak in foreign tongues, baptism of the Holy Spirit carried special significance because it was administered directly by the Lord, signifying His special approval (Acts 11:15-18). Once the kingdom was evidently opened to Gentiles and Jews, the need and occurrence of this unique baptism apparently ceased.

Baptism of Fire

Fire is often used to symbolize God's treatment of the righteous and the wicked. Some passages use fire to symbolize God's fiery wrath and judgment upon the wicked (Ezekiel 21:31-32; Isaiah 29:6). Other passages refer to a difficult, but merciful trial by refining fire that purges God's people of their wickedness (Zechariah 13:8-9; Malachi 3:1-4). In each symbolic usage of fire, the context determines whether the intent is punishment or refinement. With these two possible uses in mind, let us examine the context of the references to "baptism of fire".

Now as the people were in expectation, and all reasoned in their hearts about John, whether he was the Christ or not, John answered, saying to all,

"I indeed baptize you with water; but One mightier than I is coming, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to loose. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in His hand, and He will thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, and gather the wheat into His barn; but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire." Luke 3:15-17

John's answer was given in response to the question of him being the Messiah, or Christ. He contrasts himself with the Messiah by contrasting his baptism with the those baptisms administered by the Messiah. He continues to expound on the Messiah's authority through His power to render judgment and separate the righteous from the wicked

Please notice that the only other reference to the "fire" of verse 16 is that of "unquenchable fire" in verse 17. Verse 17 illustrates the Messiah's judgment through an old figure of separating the useless chaff from the desired wheat kernels. The winnower separates the wheat to be saved, while the chaff is separated for destruction by fire, which illustrates the ultimate redemption of the righteous and the destruction of the wicked. This would cause one to reasonably conclude that baptism by fire is nothing other than a symbol of the eternal destruction of the wicked in hell's fire.

Another possibility, although unlikely, is that the "baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire" refers to a single baptism, that comprises two elements: the empowering of the Holy Spirit and a purifying fire. This may seem plausible, since a vision of something like fire was shown during the apostles' baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-4). However, please notice that the phrase "baptize with ... fire" only occurs in two passages out of the entire Bible (Matthew 3:10-12; Luke 3:15-17). In the context of both passages, we find a reference to destruction or punishment by fire (Matthew 3:10, 12; Luke 3:17). However, in contrast to this relation, the other two gospel accounts that mention baptism with the Holy Spirit, that do not reference fire, also do not reference punishment (Mark 1:8; John 1:33). This suggests that "baptism with fire" is associated with punishment and destruction by fire.

Moreover, when Peter recalled Jesus' reference to the events surrounding the apostles and Cornelius' family's Holy Spirit baptism, he makes reference to "baptize with the Holy Spirit" but "baptize with fire" is again conspicuously absent (Acts 11:15-16).

This gives us three reasons as basis for a conclusion: one, the relation of the immediate context to destruction by fire where the phrase is used; two, the conspicuous absence of reference to punishment by fire when the phrase is not used; and three, the further absence of its reference when Holy Spirit baptism did occur. These three reasons lead one to believe that "baptism with fire" is not part of a single Holy Spirit baptism, but it is a separate baptism, referring to the immersion of the wicked into the fires of hell (Revelation 20:11-15; Matthew 25:41-46). Of course, if it did refer to a single baptism, then it would have expired in conjunction with Holy Spirit baptism according to the earlier cited passages.

Baptism of the Great Commission

John's baptism has long ceased. Holy Spirit baptism occurred only twice, and its mission was limited to empowerment by the Holy Spirit and approving the open invitation of the gospel to Jews and later, Gentiles. We have found that Bible references to "baptism with fire" refer not to a desirable blessing from God, but they rather refer to a dreaded eternal punishment, separated from God. Eliminating all the previously discussed baptisms, only one baptism remains that is eligible for our question, "Which baptism is the one baptism?".

Jesus commissioned His apostles to go into the whole world, preaching the gospel to every creature, "baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit" (Mark 16:15-16; Matthew 28:18-20). The purpose of this baptism was to be for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16; I Peter 3:21). It was not administered by Jesus, but it was performed by other humans upon willful, believing, and penitent sinners (Acts 2:37-38; Acts 8:35-38; Acts 22:12-16). The element was water (Acts 8:36-39; 10:47-48). It began to be first practiced "at the beginning" on the day of Pentecost, immediately following Jesus' ascension (Acts 2:1, 37-38), and the command for its practice continues today (Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15-16).

How do we know this is the one? If a person has been raised believing, or has been previously convinced that Holy Spirit baptism is superior and commanded over the water baptism of Jesus' Great Commission, it may be difficult to accept a Bible-based conclusion, contrary to one's personal conviction. Considering this situation, let us examine a few more points.

  1. Jesus' Great Commission included the apostles administering baptism by the authority of Jesus (Matthew 28:18-19). This commission to be carried on by disciples, and its baptism was to be performed upon those who believed (Matthew 28:20). Therefore, the baptism that was commissioned by Jesus must be able to be administered by the apostles or disciples. Since Holy Spirit baptism was administered directly by Jesus, it cannot be the baptism of the Great Commission (Luke 3:15-16).

  2. The baptism of the Great Commission was to be performed on "every creature" that believes. It is universal in it scope and without time limits. Since Holy Spirit baptism cannot be the baptism of the Great Commission, then it must not be the one baptism, if the baptism of the Great Commission is to continue until the end of time.

  3. The baptism for remission of sins was a baptism that was commanded (Acts 2:38; Acts 22:16). Holy Spirit baptism cannot be commanded by any preacher, since it is administered by the Lord; however, subjects of the gospel can and were commanded to be baptized in water, in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 10:47-48).

  4. Immediately following the Holy Spirit baptism of Cornelius' family, it was still necessary for them to be baptized in water in the name of the Lord Jesus (Acts 10:47-48). The purpose of the Holy Spirit baptism was to manifest Jesus' authority for the Gentiles' repentance unto life (Acts 10:44-48; 11:15-18). If Holy Spirit's purpose also included the redemption, salvation, or forgiveness of sins, then why did Peter follow their baptism of the Holy Spirit with the command for them to be baptized in water by the Lord's name? What was the purpose of the baptism in water in the name of the Lord Jesus?

  5. Why was nobody else baptized in the Holy Spirit, but yet many more coverts were commanded to be baptized in water by the name of Jesus? Please note: All references to commanded baptism must be understood as water baptism by above designated point 3 and cannot be Holy Spirit baptism by points 1, 2, and 3. This includes Acts 8:35-39; 22:16; 2:38; and I Corinthians 1:13-16.

  6. "Baptism in the name of the Lord" is associated with water baptism, not Holy Spirit baptism, and refers to the source of authority for the command (Acts 10:47-48; Matthew 28:18-19). Again note this was a commanded baptism, consistent with the Great Commission's purpose for the remission of sins.

    At Ephesus, Paul again commanded baptism in the name of the Lord (Acts 19:1-5). There is no reference in this passage to the baptism of the Holy Spirit; moreover, the only way the new converts were able to receive the Holy Spirit was not by Holy Spirit baptism, but by Paul administering the gift of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of his hands (Acts 19:4-5), which is consistent with other conversions (Acts 8:14-20). If Holy Spirit baptism was already the one baptism, then why was it necessary that Paul lay his hands on them that they might receive miraculous gifts, since that was one of the effects of Holy Spirit baptism (Acts 2:1-4; 10:44-48)? Why is Holy Spirit baptism not mentioned in Acts 19 or 8? Why is water baptism in the name of the Lord the one baptism mentioned in Acts 8 and 19?

  7. "Baptism in the name of the Lord" produces rejoicing (Acts 8:5-8); however, this rejoicing occurs before the miraculous reception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:14-16). How could Christians go on their way rejoicing, never receiving the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:35-39)?

The Right Baptism for the Wrong Reason

Some people realize the importance, role, and purpose of baptism, after they have already been baptized. They may have been baptized for another purpose, beside the remission of sins, if they believed they were saved before they were baptized. Others may have been baptized in water, but confused it with Holy Spirit baptism. This raises another question, "What if someone is baptized in water, but for the wrong reason?"

Fortunately, we are not left without Scriptural guidance on this question.

And it happened, while Apollos was at Corinth, that Paul, having passed through the upper regions, came to Ephesus. And finding some disciples he said to them,

"Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?" So they said to him, "We have not so much as heard whether there is a Holy Spirit." And he said to them, "Into what then were you baptized?" So they said, "Into John's baptism."

"Then Paul said, "John indeed baptized with a baptism of repentance, saying to the people that they should believe on Him who would come after him, that is, on Christ Jesus."

"When they heard this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus." Acts 19:1-5

Even though these Ephesians had been baptized in a water baptism for repentance unto remission of sins, their baptism was ultimately for the wrong purpose. It was a baptism that was looking forward unto the remission of sins granted by Jesus' crucifixion, while baptism in the name of the Lord was by the Lord's authority and immediately unto remission of sins. It was a minor point, but yet it posed a problem. The solution was simple. They were immediately baptized again, but this time for the right reason (Acts 19:5). If rebaptism was necessary for those who were baptized under a divinely ordered, but antiquated baptism, then will it not be even more necessary, if we were baptized because we wrongly thought we were already saved? If the Ephesians' baptism did not suffice, then how will any other baptism be adequate that is not the the one baptism?

Summary

The differences between each of these four baptisms is easily seen when their characteristics are compared and contrasted, as shown in the chart below:

Paul's letter to the Ephesians teaches that there is only one baptism (Ephesians 4:5). Only one baptism was administered for the purpose of salvation and is commanded still today, the baptism that was authorized by Jesus in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20). Once we recognize the true purpose and role of this one baptism, we must ask ourselves if we have been baptized for the right reason. If we have not, then the solution is simple: Be baptized in water, by the name of Jesus, for the remission of sins (Acts 2:38; 10:47-48; 22:16; 19:1-5). If we are in doubt, then why gamble with the redemption of our soul, when assurance is readily available? Why not be baptized for the right reason and put an end to all self-condemning doubt (Romans 14:23)?

The writer of Hebrews classifies doctrines concerning baptisms as "elementary" or "basic" (Hebrews 6:1-2). If it is so basic, then why is there so much confusion and hesitancy about this subject? Please do not let pride or prejudice hinder. Simply read the Bible and do what it says, abandoning tradition and your own wisdom (I Corinthians 1:18-31). Christians walk by faith, not by sight (II Corinthians 5:7). Let us encourage each other to do so.

If you any questions or comments regarding this essay, please e-mail the author or any of our local contacts.  They will be glad to discuss your questions or comments.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the New King James Version, copyright © 1994 by Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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